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Cafeteria Catholics: A Longish Response to Rick Garnett

Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett has responded to David Gibson, John Allen and myself, regarding comments we made about Pope Benedict XVI’s comments regarding the “certain schizophrenia between private and public morality.” I called attention to the comments here, in which I include a link to John Allen’s article. Here is a link to Gibson’s comments.

It is, perhaps, ironic, that on a different post yesterday, I noted that I sleep better when I find myself in agreement with Professor Garnett. So, I guess I shall be sleeping less soundly tonight.

Garnett writes:

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I agree entirely -- but, then again, I don't know any "Catholic conservatives" who don't -- that it is not only the Church's teachings on human dignity, the inviolability of human life, and religious freedom that need to be brought "to bear on political life," but rather "all of [the Church's social teaching]." I'm not sure, though, what the "party line" is that David says the Pope is subverting, or why the Pope's observation complicates things for "Catholic conservatives."
C’mon, Rick. Have you ever watched an EWTN interview between Raymond Arroyo and Fr. Robert Sirico? In what meaningful way do either of them address the preferential option for the poor that is an integral part of the Church’s social teaching? Or, their defense of torture, which is not only a violation of the Church’s teaching but is an “intrinsic evil”? Surely, you saw some of the GOP debates in which all of the candidates pledged to support the Arizona anti-immigration law which not only threatens the well-being of immigrants, in direct contradiction of many and repeated statements by the Holy Father and by the U.S. bishops but which also raises direct and dangerous threats to the religious liberty of Catholics who minister to the needs of immigrants. Or, you might note that turbo-Catholic Rick Santorum called out President Obama for exercising a “phony theology” regarding the need to protect the environment, even though if you follow recent papal statements, the proper indictment of Obama’s environmental policies would be that they do not go far enough. Do you not recall George Weigel getting out his red and gold pens when evaluating Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate?
If that is not a “party line,” what is it?
Garnett raises an important distinction, writing,
Yes, if there are conservatives out there who think that only part, and not all, of the Church's social teaching needs to brought to bear -- prudently, carefully, intelligently -- by the lay faithful on political life then, well, they are wrong. That said, I think it is a mistake to equate (a) the claim that Catholic politicians should not, in a democracy, vote to protect legally vulnerable human life because to do so would involve "imposing" "Catholic morality" and (b) the claim that, all things considered, the Church's social teaching, reasonably applied to the facts as best we can know them, does not always point clearly in the direction of left-liberal social-welfare policies. Sometimes, I assume, it does; often, I am confident, it doesn't. But, to say that it often doesn't is not to make the "Mario Cuomo" / "personally opposed, but" mistake; it is not to say that the morality of liberal democracy requires one not to allow the Church's social teaching -- all of it -- to inform one's views about economic policy. This is a difference, it seems to me, that matters.
Garnett’s is a more careful and nuanced mind than some other conservatives to be sure, nor is this point he makes a distinction without a difference. Catholic conservatives do not follow Cuomo’s logic. They do not say they are personally opposed to torture, or unrestrained capitalism, or a democracy shorn of environmental legislation, or a more just immigration policy, but do not want to impose their views on others in that democracy. Instead, they claim that they cannot “impose” their Catholic views for other reasons. We need torture because it works. We need to lower tax rates for the wealthy because, they believe, it will generate greater societal wealth (the lack of evidence of the claim notwithstanding). They claim that the Church’s teaching on the environment, while somewhat charming, are impractical or deny the science of climate change rather the way a culprit denies any responsibility for his wrong-doing. But, the result is the same: In the face of a claim rooted in the teaching of the Church, many conservative Catholics, like many liberal Catholics, look for wiggle room.
Mind – I am a fan of looking for wiggle room when one finds oneself in the estuary where religion and politics meet. As Professor Steve Schneck of CUA’s Institute for Policy Research has been arguing in a variety of venues, the Catholic Church’s tradition is almost always to come to the public square with a disposition to accept the good faith of one’s interlocutors, to apply prudential judgment to the situations at hand, and to seek not a “way out” but a way forward. Or as Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny said during her appearance on the Daily Show, the jeremiad is not a traditional Catholic approach to political and social justice issues. But, prudential judgment does not permit any policy approach. It seems to me that in the name of prudential judgment, certain conservative Catholics have been trying to justify support for the kinds of libertarian economic views that are rooted in the profoundly anti-Catholic writings of Hayek and von Mises and Rand and that is a bridge too far.
But, I would like to point all of us – Gibson, Allen, Garnett, me, and you the reader – in what I think is a more fruitful direction than hurling acrimonious charges. Let us take the example of Gov. Mario Cuomo’s stance on abortion, that while he was personally opposed, he did not want to impose his views on others in a pluralistic democracy. Although Cuomo did not invoke this, I suspect he thought, and it is not a bizarre thought, that even if he wanted to restrict or eliminate legalized abortion, there was no prudent way forward to achieve that, that any political effort to overturn Roe would risk backfiring. He may have been right in that, he may have been wrong. As I recall, Cuomo also invoked the norms of representative democracy, namely, he was elected by constituents who wanted legal abortion, just as Mr. Santorum hopes to be elected by people who want lower taxes. I think it is the nature of representative democracy for a politician to do what they think is right, not what they think the voters think is right, but let us grant that, in some sense, politicians of all stripes believe that the electorate has a claim on their votes or their vetoes. But, no voter has a claim on a politician’s voice.
I would have admired Mario Cuomo more if he had said: I do not see how we can go back to the days before Roe. I listen to the citizens of my state and they seem unconcerned or even hostile to the idea. But, I must take it as my task to raise my voice and try to convince them that they are wrong. I will not “impose” my views but I have an obligation to try and persuade others of the rightness of my views. Alas, Cuomo did no such thing. Similarly, I would admire certain conservative Catholics more if they were to say something like this regarding anti-immigration laws, or laissez-faire economics or the need to protect the environment. But, they don’t.
And, so, we get to the point that I think Gibson was making, certainly the point that I was making, that many conservative Catholics are as cavalier with parts of the Church’s teaching as certain liberal Catholics are. The gulf between Cuomo’s position on abortion and the Church’s teaching is a large one, as if the gulf between Sirico’s or Weigel’s or Santorum’s positions on economics and the Church’s teaching. The Holy Father, bless his heart, has been exceedingly vocal in proclaiming the full breadth of the Church’s teaching, in season and out of season, but of course, popes do not have to content with election seasons!
I would here make one last point, one on which I am hopeful Garnett would agree. What all of us Catholics have to do is re-evangelize ourselves so that all of our ethical positions, all of our political positions, indeed all that we are and think and do, are related to the empty tomb. The Church’s teachings on contraception and abortion are often presented as stand-alone propositions, just as the Church’s teachings on the rights of labor and the immigrants are treated as stand alone propositions. But, ultimately, all of our ethical teachings, in areas of both private and public morality, are rooted in a Christian anthropology that is, in turn, rooted in this rather astounding claim that God wishes to invite us to share in His own divine life. Living in an age in which people are prepared to believe just about anything, in which partisans of all sides ignore or distort the Church’s teachings when they find them inconvenient, it is important for all of us to recall that the Church’s teachings are not intended to stand alone, they are intended to explain to us what it means to live in the shadow of the Cross and in the hope of the empty tomb. What we Catholics share, ultimately, is greater than what divides us. The light of Christ, not the light of the blogosphere, is what calls us all to conversion, and not just on the political issues of the day, but to conversion of heart and mind. We live in a society and an age that celebrates freedom above all else, and I am as happy as anyone to drink deeply of the freedoms we enjoy. But, looking ahead to our celebrations of Holy Week, we know, all of us Catholics know, that the goal of human freedom is to become completely dependent upon the Crucified who lives.

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